Patsy Mink was the first woman of color elected to Congress. Now, her daughter reflects on her legacy amid rise in anti-Asian violence

Brittany Jones-Cooper

Patsy Mink decided to run for public office when Hawaii became a state in 1959.

In 1964, she became the first Asian American woman and first woman of color to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Her daughter, Gwendolyn Mink, was just 12 years old at the time, and today works as a feminist policy scholar writing about law, politics and gender. She may have been in middle school when her mom went to Capitol Hill, but Gwendolyn remembers how powerful the moment was for her family. “Right off the bat it wasn’t as if, ‘Oh I’m the only woman of color.’ It was ‘Oh, I’m the only one in a potentially hostile, institutional environment.'”

She adds, “It was not a very welcoming political climate to take on humongous jobs of fighting for more women to come up behind you, more women of color from the door you just opened."

In 1965, Patsy was just one of 13 women in Congress. Her legacy includes her defense of Title IX of the Education Amendments, her opposition to the Vietnam War, and her work for labor and women’s rights. “She had the same goals from when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and I embraced all of those things," Gwendolyn says. "We all need to be able to withstand defeat and continue the struggle — which is kind of the story of my mother’s life in politics.”

The movement to #StopAsianHate continues to address some of those struggles facing the Asian American and Pacific Island (AAPI) communities. Anti-violence rallies sprang up across the U.S. after a string of violent attacks that targeted Asian and Asian American people during the COVID pandemic. “What is somewhat heartening is people are sufficiently empowered that they are talking about it," she says. "But they’re not talking about something new. They are talking about something that we’ve all experienced for a very long time."

Congresswoman Patsy Mink with her husband John and daughter Gwendolyn (Photo: Getty)
Congresswoman Patsy Mink with her husband John and daughter Gwendolyn (Photo: Getty)

As a scholar whose academic work focused on American Politics, Mink sees the recent violence as the latest example of the long and complicated history of Asian Americans in the United States. After thousands immigrated from China to help build the transcontinental railroad, white Americans were so hostile that Congress passed the Chinese Immigration act in 1882 to halt immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. “You had political mobilizations of both political parties in California to exterminate or expel all Asians in California, which is where the largest population was,” says Gwendolyn.

During World War II, the U.S. government forced Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants into internment camps after Pearl Harbor was bombed. There was violence against Korean-American businesses during the Los Angeles riots, and South-Asian Americans faced hate and violence after the 9/11 attacks.

“You don’t see the violence because nobody sees us," she says. "But when we are rendered visible, which is usually because somebody hates something associated with Asia, not AAPI people, the violence explodes.”

As more awareness is brought to the AAPI experience in America, Mink recognizes and applauds the shift in activism from previous decades. She’s currently finishing a political biography about her mother, which she hopes will contribute to more visibility of AAPI activism and political leadership. Currently, three Asian-American women are serving in Congress. Three women who are continuing the legacy of Patsy Mink and empowering others to remain engaged in the fight for equal rights.

“Their living, breathing contributions, which are many, is something that can inspire not only the next generation, but others who haven't made decisions about whether they want public facing lives to maybe take that leap into public service," says Gwendolyn.

Produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

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